They’re the top two seniors in one of the top women’s basketball programs in the country. By most measures, the University of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke are valuable performers. That includes a new method of stat-keeping, one where fans and businesses can get into the game.
The reigning national player of the year for the reigning national champion, Aliyah is also the reigning most marketable player in college basketball, according to analysis by ESPN. Zia, the team’s second-leading returnee, behind Aliyah, in points and assists, is considered one of the top college basketball players in potential earnings, with Bloomberg valuing her promotional posts on Instagram at $8,000 each.
“One of my first partnerships was with Fenty Beauty,” Zia says. She can be found on TikTok promoting the brand created by pop star Rihanna. “I loved doing that one. I admire Rihanna as an artist and entrepreneur, so representing her brand made me happy.”
College athletes making thousands of dollars for social media posts? In the time it takes to run a fast break, college sports has entered a new era. Court rulings, rule changes — and the lack of rules in some cases — have allowed student-athletes to profit from usage of their name, image, or likeness, and “NIL” is now spoken just as often as NCAA when people talk about college sports.
“Being a collegiate athlete has changed significantly since I played softball, and I think it has changed for the better,” says Hilary Cox, the Gamecocks’ associate athletics director for administration. A former all-conference player at the University of North Georgia, she’s now one of the point people navigating the relationship between Gamecock athletes, those who want to do business with them, and the athletic department.
For more than a century, athletes have been used to sell products. One of the earliest examples is the baseball card inserted into packs of chewing gum or tobacco. The image of a champion athlete on a Wheaties cereal box is part of popular culture.
Those athlete-endorsers were either professionals or retired; however, by definition, amateurs are forbidden from accepting pay for play. Traditionally, that extended to product endorsements, autograph sales, or anything else that would financially capitalize on their athletic achievements.
The NCAA had a history of strict enforcement. For example, Jeremy Bloom, a dynamic kick returner at the University of Colorado and world-class skier, was declared ineligible for football his junior year in 2003 for accepting endorsement money to cover his skiing expenses for the Olympics. While athletes’ benefits were restricted to their scholarships, college sports, particularly football and basketball, evolved into a world of billion-dollar TV contracts and million-dollar coaches.
The first serious challenge to NCAA-style amateurism was by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star who protested the continued use of his likeness in a video game. His 2009 lawsuit set in motion a procession of litigation climaxing in 2021, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously the NCAA was subject to antitrust law.
Following the decision, the NCAA agreed to allow athletes to receive NIL compensation, subject to state law. States such as South Carolina quickly issued legislation in an attempt to regulate this new arena. Among other aspects, the General Assembly limited sports agent compensation and placed restrictions on how involved universities could be in facilitating athletes’ NIL activities.
However, upon seeing the rapidly shifting regulatory landscape across the country — and with concerns top athletes would bypass South Carolina schools for competitors in more NIL-friendly states — legislators put the law on hold. As organizations crop up to capitalize, universities and their student-athletes are trying to manage an evolving frontier.
“The NIL deals are between the student-athlete and a third party and typically do not involve the institution,” says Jeff Kallin, associate athletic director for communications and strategic initiatives at Clemson University. “Broadly, deals that we’ve seen publicized have ranged from apparel to the promotion of restaurants, products, and others.”
Under its NIL program called Reign, the school is developing a Clemson Athletics Branding institute. The school says athletes can receive media training and content-creation support through the institute. Reign will also tap into Clemson athletics partners both on and off campus to provide additional resources.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, have made several announcements related to NIL. For example, the athletic department has arranged for student-athletes in some sports to benefit from T-shirt and jersey sales featuring players’ names and numbers.
“We were sent a compliance form. We just had to sign off on it and date it,” Gamecocks punter Kai Kroeger says of the jersey deal. “Obviously the company that makes them gets the large portion of proceeds, and then we get a portion of it.”
A Greenville firm, Everett Sports Management (ESM), is teaming with the Gamecocks to create an exclusive marketing agency for NIL activities. Called Park Ave, the agency will work to secure NIL deals for participating players. The athletic department will foot the bill instead of the agents charging players a commission.
“Our athletes will have access to some of the premier marketing agents in the country for free,” Hilary says. “It’s still in its infancy, this whole concept of NIL. We’ve always tried to think three steps ahead instead of being reactive.”
Dan Everett, a partner at ESM, says Park Ave will double the volume of deals Gamecock athletes would otherwise execute on the NIL market without their service. “They’re going to earn more NIL money than at any other university in the country,” he says. It could provide an advantage in attracting top athletes. “If you’re a top recruit and NIL factors into your decision, the University of South Carolina has now become the alpha university in the country for maximizing NIL.”
Increased national exposure for top athletes also benefits their schools. “There’s nothing better than having a student-athlete like Aliyah Boston in a South Carolina jersey in an ad on the West Coast,” Hilary says.
ESM currently represents NFL stars such as Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns and Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, as well as former Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw. “If NIL had been around when Connor Shaw was playing for the University of South Carolina, he could have conservatively earned more than $1 million combined over his last two years,” Dan says.
Some college athletes have hired sports agents on their own. Before he transferred from the University of Oklahoma, Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler signed with Steinberg Sports & Entertainment to handle NIL opportunities. SSE, founded by sports superagent Leigh Steinberg, represents dozens of football players including Patrick Mahomes. Zia is represented by Erin Kane with Excel Sports Management.
“My agent, Erin, and my parents and I talk about the opportunities and decide which ones fit,” Zia says. She says she’s secure in knowing her parents have her best interests at heart. She also solicits opinions from friends. “But from a business standpoint, my agent handles the negotiations and contract part of things and manages the scheduling for me.”
Greenville attorney David Wyatt spent 14 years representing pro football players. He’s currently consulting with athletes, businesses, and schools on the different NIL rules around the country. “You need to be really careful,” David says. “If you were to violate these rules and a player loses their eligibility, there’s the potential for civil and criminal liability. It’s just a minefield.”
David says the schools with the biggest fan and alumni bases will be able to put the most outside resources toward NIL. It’s already coming to fruition with “collectives.” These independent groups have pooled investments to create opportunities for players to make money.
Gamecock-supporting collectives include Carolina Rise and Garnet Trust. Clemson collectives include Dear Old Clemson, Palmetto Cat Crew, and TigerImpact. TigerImpact was set up as a nonprofit, making members’ contributions tax deductible. It connects Clemson athletes with charities and compensates them for engaging with the organizations and amplifying their mission through social media and public relations.
“In some cases, they already have charities they’re working with. This gives them an elevated opportunity to build on that relationship,” says Bobby Couch, TigerImpact’s executive director. “They’re going back to that charity several more times per year than before. They’re promoting them on social media; they’re putting the word out in the community.”
Women’s track and field athlete Courtney Williams and football player DJ Uiagalelei support the Clemson Downs retirement community through TigerImpact. Women’s basketball player Amari Robinson supports ClemsonLIFE, a program that provides a university experience for men and women with intellectual disabilities. Softball player Valerie Cagle supports NShelter, which assists children of cancer patients.
Student-athletes continue to strike deals with businesses as well. Garnet Trust connected Gamecocks wide receiver Dakereon Joyner with Cove 2 Coast Marine for a radio ad campaign. When ESPN ranked Aliyah No. 1 in an August article, it cited her deals with Bojangles, Bose, Crocs, and Under Armour. DJ Uiagalelei has appeared in an ad for Dr. Pepper.
Opendorse is a Nebraska-based firm that compiles data on sports marketing. Based off numbers through the end of August, it estimates the average NIL deal for a college quarterback is $2,240, while a punter or kicker makes $436. The Big Ten is the top conference for NIL compensation, with the Southeastern Conference, home of the Gamecocks, ranking fifth and the Atlantic Coast Conference, home of the Tigers, sixth.
The most common NIL activity, according to Opendorse, is posting content online. Many women’s basketball players have fared well in NIL thanks to their strong presence on social media. Zia has more than 220,000 Instagram followers, while Aliyah has more than 105,000.
“I feel blessed that people are interested in following me!” Zia says. Winning a national championship and exposure through Overtime, a social influencer and content platform, have helped boost her audience. “But really, I love what I get to do as a basketball player, and social media lets me share that.”
Another example of the power of social media was a joke by a Gamecocks linebacker that turned into an endorsement. While mowing neighborhood lawns in May, Mohamed Kaba tweeted he was soliciting yardwork because “these NIL deals ain’t hitting yet.” By June he was making promotional tweets for Catoe’s Power Equipment, which sells lawn mowers.
“I was back home and I was broke. Dead broke. I was driving around the neighborhood and I was seeing not everybody had their grass cut,” Mo says. “Next thing you know, all that stuff happened, and I’m where I’m at right now and NIL opportunities have been coming in ever since.”
Resistance remains to the idea of college athletes making money, both by fans and coaches. Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN’s Chris Low in April that NIL was good for the college athletes who will never have the opportunity to make money playing professionally. Still, he worried about “unintended consequences.”
“A lot of kids are going to end up with no degrees who make decisions based on the wrong things,” Dabo said. “A lot of decisions will be based on short-term stuff, and they’re going to sacrifice the long-term value of education, relationships, and connectivity.”
It will take time to make sense of it all. Oliver Luck is a former college and NFL quarterback and college athletic director. He’s also chairman of Altius Sports Partners, which is assisting dozens of schools, including Carolina and Clemson, with NIL activities. On top of that, he helps lead the NIL Education and Information Center, which is partnering with Arizona State University to gather and analyze data.
“I can’t overemphasize how massive a change this is,” he says. “Generally, college athletics is a pretty highly regulated industry. The NCAA did not really provide any guidance. Nobody right now could tell you the size of the marketplace. It’s very difficult for policymakers to craft intelligent policy if you have no idea what size the marketplace is.”
Knowing the obsession fans have with college sports, NIL will be another opportunity for loyalists to trumpet their squad’s victories. The difference is this time players will take home more than a trophy, and boosters will have the biggest opportunity yet to impact the outcome.